Intel Atom: Not Just For Computers Anymore

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by Jacqueline Emigh

In its competitive battles with ARM and AMD, Intel is now moving its Atom processors beyond netbooks and notebooks into ever smaller nettop PCs, home and business storage devices, cable modems for consumers and maybe smartphones, with embedded security from its new McAfee acquisition firmly in mind for the future.

Nettop PCs
Intel’s Atom played heavily in a number of announcements this week. For instance, Shuttle on Thursday shipped three configurations of its sleek XS35HTPC net top PC, all using the low-power Intel Atom D510 CPU. The entry-level XS35-702 and midrange XS35-704 net tops combine the Atom chip with Intel GMA 3150 graphics.
The top-of-the-line XS35 model, priced on NewEgg at $379.99, uses the D510 CPU in conjunction with NVIDIA Ion graphics. The XS35 also adds a built-in DVD burner and support for a Blu-ray drive.

Storage devices
Meanwhile, on Monday of this week, Intel announced two new Atom processors specifically designed for network-attached storage (NAS) boxes and other storage devices: the 1.8GHz Atom D425 single-core and DR525 dual-core.
Supporting both Windows Home Server and open source Linux OS, the new processors have already been adopted by many vendors into storage products that are available now. These storage customers include Acer, Cisco, La Cie, LG, Netgear, NetGear, QNAP, Super Micro, Synology, and Thecus, according to Intel officials.

LaCie, for example, has used the chips in two storage servers aimed at giving enterprise-caliber storage to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), said Erwin Girard, business unit manager of LaCie Solutions.
With the two new chips, Intel is adding high-end functionality to Atom while also trying to hold on to Atom’s energy-saving capabilities, an advantage Atom carries over Intel’s older desktop PC and notebook chip architectures.

The D425 and D525 are designed to speed storage processing time by using higher CPU frequencies while also supporting a new memory technology, DDR3 SODIMM, which is aimed at providing higher performance with less power consumption and heat than DDR2. Intel is using the new Atom chips in conjunction with its 82801 I/O controller for connectivity.

Cable modems
Also on Monday, Intel purchased Texas Instruments’ cable modem chip division, with plans to expand the use of Atom into cable modems as well as other consumer electronics (CE) products such as set top boxes.

TI is a major user of ARM processing cores, and its Puma 5 chips for cable modems also integrate ARM cores. Intel will incorporate the TI division into its Digital Home Group.

With Intel now on a buying spree, reports started surfacing late last month that Intel is talking with Infineon Technologies about acquiring its baseband-chip business, which makes processors for smartphones.

Intel previously owned XScale, another business focusing on cell phone chips. However, in 2006, Intel sold XScale to Marvell Technology Group, a company that went on to develop an ARM-based processor now used widely in smartphones.

Yet despite its established popularity with netbooks and low-cost notebooks, Atom still uses too much power for use in smartphones, according to some analysts. Even if the buyout happens, the Infineon technology such as integrated power management wouldn’t appear until after release of a third-generation Atom chip, codenamed Medfield, in late 2011 or 2012.

Atom devices to get embedded McAfee security
Also as part of its buying spree, Intel announced the acquisition of McAfee on Thursday, with plans to integrate McAfee security – plus technology from an earlier Wind River buyout — with Atom for use across a wide range of devices.

“McAfee’s strategy of protecting the multitude of devices such as ATMs, printers, digital copiers, and cars fits with helping organizations better manage and protect the IP enabled mobile and embedded devices that run Wind River embedded and mobile software,” said George Kurtz, McAfee’s worldwide CTO and executive VP, in a blog post.

However, not all analysts are convinced that a strategy of embedding security into Atom will work. In another blog, Andrew Jacquith, a security analyst at Forrester, wrote: “IIntel] wants to plant a place in the mobile security space it believes will be necessary to protect these devices. Moreover, I can understand why Intel feels it ought to be baking more capabilities into silicon; it helps differentiate its chips against rivals AMD and ARM (via its licensees).”

Yet Jaquith also questioned the need to embed security in non-Windows systems; the wisdom of Intel’s hardware platform strategy; Intel’s understanding of software; and the experience levels of both Intel and McAfee in the mobile market.




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